Dorr Eugene Felt - The Man

(Dorr Eugene Felt)
Born in Rock County, Wisconsin on Mar 18, 1862, Dorr Eugene Felt grew up on a farm where his formal education ended after one year of high school. By the age of 14, he was working in a Beloit machine shop where his mechanical bend was nurtured and rewarded. Around 1882 he moved to the nearest "big town", Chicago, to secure employment and advance his keen interest in machine design.

According to Mary Elizabeth Schmidt, granddaughter, he first served with a maintenance crew at the Pullman Company becoming a foreman before leaving to try his hand as a sewing machine salesman. Quickly, however, he returned to machine shop work with Ostrander and Huke where he took note of how a planning machine controlled varying depths of cut. The idea struck him that a similar technique could be applied to the design of a calculating machine, a unique concept for its time. But another year would pass before he could implement his ideas.

When work slowed at O&H, he connected with A. B. Lawther who, impressed with an elevator invention Felt had devised, gave him a place to work in return for an interest in any resulting invention. By the end of 1884, Felt had built the first crude model of what was to become the Comptometer from rubber bands, meat skewers, staples and a macaroni box.

At some point, his old employer, Ostrander, suggested that Felt buy out Lawther's interest and he did so by borrowing $800 from a cousin, Chauncy W. Foster. Apparantly this early "venture capital" was sufficient to finance the materials to build his first machines as well. Over the next two years, the design was refined into a metal mechanism while retaining its wooden case. Interestingly, Felt's first patent would assign the invention to Foster and himself.

Some time during this period, Robert Tarrant, owner of a Chicago machine shop, became interested in Felt's work and, according to Darby, provided him with work space in his shop and some $5000 for materials and parts. Since Foster was anxious to get his investment back, this too was covered by Tarrant money. On Nov 28, 1887, an equal partnership was formed and 14 months later, incorporated as the Felt & Tarrant Mfg. Company.

There is little recorded about Felt's private life during the years he was designing machines and building his business. He married Agnes McNulty in January of 1891 and had four daughters before "giving up" on conceiving a male heir.

Dorr Eugene Felt died of a stroke on August 7, 1930, having amassed some 46 domestic and 25 foreign patents, virtually all related to his beloved Comptometer. He was inventor, founder and lifetime "CEO", a unique combination of roles that he shared with Henry Ford, Edmund Land, David Packard and Bill Hewlett (and, so far, Bill Gates). A largely unheralded pioneer of today's data processing business, many machines of his early design were still in everyday use some 50 years after his death.


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